This 3-night tour with Smooth Red included two full days touring vineyards and Grand Cru winemakers in the Medoc and St-Emilion areas of Bordeaux. You would expect a visit to 6 vineyards to be boring by the end – after all, each vineyard looks pretty much like another. Although the basic process of growing vines and making wine is the same, we were fascinated by the touches that made each one unique.
A few basic facts about making wine in this region
Everything relies on the ‘terroir’ – soil composition, natural environment, drainage
The Medoc was swamp until 17th century when the Dutch helped to drain it and plant vines. Bordeaux was the biggest port after London during 17th and 18th centuries
It is flat, mainly gravel so ideal for cabernet sauvignon grapes harvested around September. It takes two vines to produce one bottle of wine
With AOC appellation they are obliged to give % of production to government, so give them the dregs basically! This is used to produce commercial alcohol products.
St-Emilion region is hilly and dates back to Roman times as a vine-growing area.
Young vines produce higher yield but less intense-flavored grapes; mature vines produce fewer grapes, but their flavor is much more concentrated. It is forbidden to irrigate vines over 3 years old.
Chateau Lafon-Rochet, Tesseron
The first we visited, this is a super-modern building with temperature of individual vats and air-conditioning all controlled by computer. A brilliant large-screen display monitors every element of the process for each tank. They have reverted to concrete for their vats but still use French oak barrels.
A large estate, they sell wine as ‘futures’ – merchants visit, taste the not-yet bottled wine, order and pay up front for delivery around 18-24 months after grapes are picked. Good cash-flow system. We tasted some direct from a barrel, so not matured, then two more bottled but still young. Tannins stronger than they will be after more years in the bottle, but you get a feel for how they will taste in the future.
Cecile was very informative, explaining their choice of stainless steel vats and their 30% turnover of new oak barrels each year. All the winemakers we visited use barrels for around 3 years then replace them with new, selling on the older ones to whisky or brandy distillers.
They have an excellent museum on site, very smooth samples of their rich, red Grand Cru wines to try, and a stunning Chateau that also provides accommodation and tuition as an Ecole du Vin. An attractive option for the future, I think.
A stunning chateau, this is a film-maker’s dream location. It has a more traditional approach with original large concrete vats, each section related to a specific plot and grape variety on the estate, limited to just one tank this year given the exceptionally poor start to 2017. It was interesting to hear how sulphites are used – the cause of the dreaded hangover apparently.
Three different wines to sample, and everyone getting braver with comments about the smells and flavors they could recognize, though not necessarily correctly. However, you can tell the difference between younger and more mature, mellower wines. We invested in one of their beautiful glass decanters though no wine this trip.
Chateau du Tailhas, Pomerol
Day 2 starts with our trip to the St-Emilion region, with Chateau du Tailhas – Pomerol is unique in this area as it is very flat with a light, sandy soil. They grow mainly cabernet sauvignon grape variety, the vines always grafted onto American root stock as this is resistant to disease in the soil. Mr Nebout explained how the barrel makers flavor the barrels by burning the inside surface, intensifying the oaky aromas.
Very impressive cellars and steel tanks, with wonderful smooth reds for us to sample. This is an internationally renowned producer with some very prestigious (and expensive!) wines available.
Right in the centre of St-Emilion village, this was the most unusual winemaker we visited. The owner had sold the Spar shops chain and bought this business, now experimenting with different methods of fermenting including terracotta storage jars like those used in ancient Greece. The vineyards are in the surrounding countryside, of course, but the grapes are brought directly to the chateau for processing.
A visit to the cellar is an adventure! We are talking old, low-ceiling tunnels winding under the house for 3 Km, the final section for the private collection of wines from every vintage, some more than 100 years old. It felt very odd to emerge inside the kitchen of the main house at the end of the tunnel.
Tasting this time involved a walk through the old town, very steep narrow paths, to one of the largest wine shops. Three more reds to try then on to our delicious lunch at L’Envers du Décor.
Our final visit was to a small family-run estate owned by the family since 18th century. They have now added two further small estates nearby, Chateau Vieux Grand Faurie and Chateau Haute Terrasse.
When there is very poor weather, these chateaux can lose between 60%-100% of their crop – not an immediate effect as it is around 18 months before it would be sold, but things can become very difficult for them. Unlike some of the other vineyards, they sell bottled wine to individual customers rather than as futures to larger wine merchants. We were very fortunate to see a traditional small-scale producer and taste wine from all three chateaux.
We gained some valuable insights into the basic wine-making techniques, how each Chateau differentiated their wines, and the critical importance of the terroir. Even after a short visit like this, we can see how important the vintage is and the negative impact on smaller vineyards when nature destroys their harvest. We left wishing them good weather.